HENRY AND THE BALANCE OF PROBABILITY
It was 20 July and Lance Edward Atwood was that day twelve years old. Actually, the consciousness that occupied the boy’s body was somewhat older than the Universe, and indeed had watched its creation, but Lance was nonetheless excited. Even archangels can be thrilled about birthdays, being creatures who by nature tend to get stuck into things.
He was up way before his dads, scavenging in the pile of family presents left at the end of his bed. It was an impressive haul. On the Atwood side he had cousins, uncles and aunts, grandparents and of course his dad, and the Atwoods were good about birthdays. Then there was the network of both his dads’ friends whom he called uncles and aunts. Not least among these were his Uncle Rudi and Aunt Harry, the king and queen of Rothenia, who had a special affection for Lance, for they believed it was to him they owed the life of their only son, Maxim.
Lance sat in his pyjamas, his dark hair tousled, his face grinning fit to split, stacking his new toys and models. His devotion to Warhammer 40K had been assiduously advertised round the family. As a result, he had the makings of an entire imperial legion laid out on his worktable, complete with a whole squadron of battle tanks. Reggie would be delighted. He collected Orks with equal dedication and enthusiasm.
The Mendamero Men, the gang of which Lance was a proud member, would assemble to consecrate the occasion in a couple of hours. It was as yet early on what was going to be a hot, bright Rothenian morning. Poolside fun was promised for later, with a nonstop barbecue party all afternoon and evening for the boys and girls of Year 8 of the Strelzen International School.
There was an audible splash from outside the house. Lance ran to the window which looked on to the backyard and discovered a small, dark head bobbing in the water. He gave a suppressed whoop when he recognised his early visitor and dashed down the stairs, throwing off his clothes as he reached the kitchen, then leaping and somersaulting into his pool.
He surfaced face-to-face with Damien Macavoy, whose teeth were chattering from the cold water. They grinned manically at each other.
‘Cheers, Daimey! What you doing here? Where’re your dads?’
‘Still asleep. But I sneaked out to be the first to sing Happy Birfday to yer, like! Fook! Me balls have disappeared up into me, I’m so fookin’ co-o-o-ld!’
Lance was less affected by the chill, being used to early morning practice. Still, when he peered down, he noted how the cold had also shrivelled away his own genitals. He had been growing some feathery pubic hair until his coach told him to shave it off because of his diving commitments. His bare groin emphasised the effect of the cold, making his penis looked like a baby’s
He glanced back up to his friend. ‘You’re a mate, Daimey. Thanks for coming!’ When Damien Macavoy was near, he always gave Lance a warm and happy feeling. They were born to be friends. Lance launched himself into a fast crawl, Damien following him. They raced up and down the pool, Lance easily winning, as he always did.
Then an ominous and unwelcome event occurred. Damien was hauling out in front of him when Lance observed the curve of his friend’s perfect rear and his brown, smooth skin, beaded with water. For no particular reason, he was suddenly struck by how amazingly beautiful Damien was. He was puzzled by a sudden breathless emptiness in his stomach as he observed Damien’s lithe grace when the boy padded to a recliner. He found it difficult to look away, and had to force himself out of the water. He felt an aching sense of longing that was both new to him and difficult to ignore or suppress.
They sat together dripping and naked on the deckchair, a dark pool collecting round their small toes. Neither boy was especially concerned about going bare-arsed, and Rothenia was in any case a nation of naturists, where public nudity was not much remarked in parks and on beaches. But it was still early in the morning and the breeze was cool, so when Lance noticed his friend shivering he got up and found two robes.
Damien gratefully wrapped himself in one of them. ‘Reggie and Mattie’ll be here at ten. Let’s go down and catch the tram into town and do the mall before lunch. You got money from yer granddad?’
‘Yeah! Cool idea. Then we can have a McDonald’s and come back for the barbecue. My dads’ll say yes to anything today.’ Lance giggled, then put on a wickedly accurate imitation of Henry scolding: ‘You had a McDonald’s? You’ll spoil your appetite for dinner!’
The two boys fell about. Then they got up and started raiding the kitchen. Mrs Willerby arrived just in time to prevent a rather hazardous experiment with a frying pan and a box of eggs.
‘We were just going to make my dads a fry-up, Mrs Willerby!’
‘A nice thought, dear, but why don’t you do the drinks and the cereal? Damien can get out the trays and cups. You’d better leave the bacon and eggs to me.’
Damien dashed out at that point and returned with a card and his own present, which he handed over with a shy grin.
‘Brilliant, Daimey! That’s the DVD I wanted!’
The boys hugged, as they had done often in the past. This time, however, as their bodies pressed together, something unaccustomed happened that caused Lance’s eyes to widen and him to break off the embrace prematurely. Damien’s smell in his nostrils was warm and exciting, and a feeling surged once more from the pit of his stomach: it was that longing again. Realising his penis was rapidly thickening in a new way, he had to turn and adjust his robe to prevent the rebellious member from poking out the front. What in heck was going on?
‘Back to work then, little babe? I’m not surprised. I was just wondering how long it’d take you to make up your mind. Not that it hasn’t been great having you at home looking after our baby, but it must have been boring for you.’
‘Not totally. I’ve made a good start on my book on contemporary Rothenia and its politics after the May Rising. I’ve managed quite a bit of the research. I may even go looking for a contract.’
‘Great! Go for it. Fancy that, a book by Henry Robert Atwood! Who’ll you dedicate it to?’
Ed kissed his Henry. ‘Where are Lance and the Men?’
‘Gone to the Mikhelstrasse Urban Mall to hang out with the other middleclass kids from the Sixth and Seventh Districts. The security people should keep them out. They never buy much, they only pose and squeal. And that’s just the boys.’
Shaking his head, Henry carried on laying out the tables on the pool deck. In a few hours it would be thronged with a crowd of excited twelve-year-olds. Mrs Willerby had provided catering on the lines of provisioning for a small army. Two large gas-fired grills were ready for the meat. General Ed would be in command of the barbie.
‘Sleepover with the Men tonight?’ Henry queried.
‘Need you ask?’
‘They’ll all be tangled up snoring and farting tomorrow morning. I’ll open the windows in Lance’s bedroom.’
‘So … this back-to-work thing. Have you talked to Will?’
‘I had him on the mobile yesterday evening. He’s very happy about it. He put me on to Tomas Weiss, and I think I’ll be making my re-entry into the world of news journalism next week some time, but with a difference.’
‘Woytek Molinier has moved to German TV, leaving a vacancy for news anchor at Eastnet.’
‘Wow! So you get to be the main man? Fantastic!’
‘Not quite. Tomas wants to have an anchor team instead of one man up front, but yeah, I’ll be the cute guy in his suit opposite the nice gal in hers making cheery chitchat across the desk to sweeten the pill of war, global downturn and terrorism.’
‘Great! … I think. You’ll do it with such charm.’
‘I expect to. I’d better ask Mrs Willerby to get my suits cleaned. My casual period looks to be coming to an end.’
Tommy Entwhistle checked the Departures monitor again. Heathrow Terminal Five was thronged and the queues were lengthening. He pre-printed his passes with the help of a nice British Airways lady who was happy to laugh and joke with him. Then he checked in his baggage with only a minimal queue to delay him. The weight of the two cases was a bit over the limit, but the woman on the desk just smiled and accepted them anyway.
Tommy was always a hit with the girls. That July morning, dressed in long shorts and tee, with his Ray-Bans high in his blonde hair, he was looking particularly delectable. Maybe also the light in his eyes and his ready smile were all the more attractive, as he was heading for Rothenia and his boyfriend.
After the brief purgatory of the security barrier, which didn’t extinguish his smile, Tommy settled into a newspaper and an Americano at one of the Starbucks concessions under the vast tent of the terminal roof. He had his iPod plugged in his ears and was nodding his head to his favourite Scandinavian electro-pop, while keeping one eye on the monitor and the other on passing guys.
Since falling into a relationship with Fritz, Tommy had become much more aware of the interest he aroused in other men. He was quite surprised by the number who checked him out both covertly and openly. He had learned not to smile at the latter. He was not interested in casual blow jobs in public loos.
Tommy saw the gate call with rising excitement. Whatever happened to him in Rothenia, this was his good time. He had graduated from Stevenage University with a high upper-second-class degree in English, along with his friend Max Jamroziak, who had soared into the first class. Max was staying on for a master’s degree, but Tommy was getting ready to meet the world on his own terms.
First, however, there was the summer, and Fritz. Tommy had no doubt that it was love between them. Fritz had postponed his return to Strelzen from his London posting month by month, just so they could continue to explore their relationship. They had enjoyed golden moments and unbelievable sex.
Their life together had had its high points. But it was the quiet times where the cementing of their connection had begun to happen, Fritz silently placing coffees by his boyfriend with a kiss on the head as Tommy revised for his finals, then just sitting quietly with a book and watching him work. Tommy loved the theatre, so Fritzy had decided to love it too, finding tickets to the Samuel Beckett productions which were part of Tommy’s study, and driving him to Leeds to catch the performances.
The day Fritz had left London three weeks before, just after a marathon sex session to celebrate Tommy’s success in his finals, Fritz held him and announced, ‘Baby, I’m sure as anything in my life that this is it. You’re the one I’ve been looking for. I love you so much … you’re all I can think of … all I want now.’
They snuggled. ‘So, what next then, Fritzku?’
‘You have to come to Strelzen for a while. Hey! You can meet Henry and Ed, not to mention Lance and Damien, Justy and Nate.’
‘I’m not sure I have the strength … and Lance! Christ! How do you deal with an archangel reborn as a human boy?’
‘It helps if you’ve been initiated as a Mendamero Man by Daimey.’
‘Have you been?’
‘Oh yeah, I’m Mendamero Man number 11. To prove it, I have a card presented to me by the Honorary Secretary, Reggie Mayer. It’s in my wallet. You never know when you might need it in Strelzen. I hear it gets you access to the palace. The king’s a bit pissed that he’s only number 14. The queen is number 5.’
The two young men laughed. Then Fritz paused. ‘And are you really going to do it?’
‘You know what … take your degree in blouse and skirt.’
‘I am. My year group know me as Tommy the Tranny, so I shall walk the stage very elegantly in heels … though I don’t think I’ll curtsey as I shake the Chancellor’s hand. I might lose balance and where’s the dignity in that?’
‘You’re my hero … you know that?’
‘You make it all worthwhile, Fritzku. I live for you.’
And Tommy did it. He smiled a little ruefully as he recalled the event of only three days before. His sister alone had come to see him graduate. It had not been easy. He’d finally had to break the news of his cross-dressing to his mum, and had been disappointed – if not surprised – when she refused to see him take his degree in women’s clothing. However, the strong family support from Alison had got him through.
As a compromise, he had agreed to wipe his face clean of makeup and pose in a man’s suit and tie for his graduation photo, so his mum could put it in her lounge. Then his friends had clubbed together to have an alternative Tommy graduation picture with him in his charcoal grey pin-striped dress, tights and high heels. That was the one Fritz had wanted.
Walking out on the stage to a tremendous cheer from the hundreds of students and a standing ovation from his year group had affirmed Tommy in a new way. Something had changed in him on his graduation day, and he was still trying to come to terms with what it was. One symptom was that he now found wearing boy-clothes easier and less like a betrayal of what he was. He was nonetheless wearing tight silk bikini briefs beneath his jeans. Wouldn’t Customs be surprised if they strip-searched him!
Tommy shouldered his bag and headed for the gate from which Flight BA6255 direct to Strelzen International was soon to leave. Rothenia, in all its strangeness and danger, awaited him.
His Serene Highness, Franz-Xavier-August-Serge-Rudolf-Boromil, count and prince of Tarlenheim, count of Fürstenburg, landgrave of Klethgau, Knight Grand Cordon of the Order of the Red Rose, hereditary Lord High Marshal of Ruritania, Knight of the Orders of Henry the Lion and St Lucacz of Rothenia, Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order of Great Britain, moodily surveyed his train set. His visit to his childhood enthusiasm under the eaves of his urban palace in Strelzen had not had its usual soothing effect.
Fritz replaced the covers with a certain poignant finality. He had grown up, and a boyish delight in his model trains seemed no longer to move him. Today, however, there was an even darker tinge to his mood. He remembered blithely telling his brother that one day he would hand on his collection and dioramas to his son. Well, that would never happen now, would it?
Am I gay? he asked himself. Was he? With his brother there was no doubt. Although anything but effeminate, Oskar came alight in the company of other men, especially gay men. He had a certain languid sensuality which, when turned on someone, left no doubt that he was a man who loved men and was fully prepared to consummate it.
Fritz could not be like that. There was only one man who had really moved him to the point of love and deep sexual passion. Tommy Entwhistle was unique, and Fritz’s desire for him was all-consuming; he could not stop thinking about the man. It was a monomania.
Maybe that was it. It was not that Tommy was a man, so much as that he was Tommy. But Fritz was also a prince, and pride of lineage was close to the core of his being. The idea that his passion, if followed to its logical conclusion, might result in his being the last prince of Tarlenheim was deeply unsettling. What was worse, he could not as yet imagine breaking the news to his brother and sister, his closest family. Even though Oskar was gay, Fritz did not think he would be happy at the news that the head of the family had pledged himself to a relationship with another man. Was Fritz ashamed of his attachment to Tommy Entwhistle? Was Tommy a braver man than he?
More to the point, would Oskar feel that Fritz was betraying him? After behaving in a way he considered unworthy of a prince of Tarlenheim, Oskar had resigned his title and all it represented to his younger brother, who he had always expected would maintain the honour and glory of their lineage – and pass it on to his posterity.
Fritz checked his watch. Tommy’s flight would be landing in two hours. To his relief, all his demons took flight at the recollection of his boyfriend’s smiling face and graceful body. He took the back stairs to the courtyard where his roadster was parked, rattling his keys as he went. He grinned. Tommy would be driving it back from the airport.
Damien and Lance sat high above the pool party on the edge of the lower of the diving boards. ‘Helen says Tatiana Wendela is telling everyone she’s your girlfriend.’
Lance rolled his eyes. ‘I just talked to her the once! She was having trouble with her locker. I dunno … ya talk to girls and the next thing ya know they’re planning the wedding!’
‘S truth, mate. Helen says they’re all desperate to be your girlfriend. Your problem is you’re so cool, Lance. If they knew the truth about yer, they’d be even keener! Yer know what yer best bet’d be?’
‘S obvious. No one bovvers me cos everyone knows that me and Helen are tight. Yer needs to pick one of ‘em yer can be friendly with.’
‘Totally. So which one?’
Lance looked down moodily on the pool from their eyrie. Girls squealed in a high pitched way that he really could not abide. Boys were so much more understandable and … well, interesting. A female group sitting on the pool side with their feet in the water caught his gaze and waved up at him. He gave a sickly smile and a half-wave back. Girls were so pushy too!
‘Daimey, y’know you and Helen?’
‘Well … when you and she. I mean … when you two are sorta close … whassit like?’
Damien looked surprised at the question, then frowned. ‘Well, she’s sorta nice and really kind. She’s got a great laugh … not like them down there! She doan’ squeal, and I can just talk and talk to her, and she listens. She makes sense of things, bit like Reggie does, but she’s really nice with it.’
Lance continued to look expectant. Damien blushed and shifted on the board. Lance suddenly noticed a bulge in his friend’s Speedos that hadn’t been there a moment ago. It answered his question.
But Damien did reply. ‘She’s nice looking and smells great, Lance. I’m telling yer this cos you’ve only become a boy these past couple of years, but … well, when we kiss and I hold her I get this amazing feeling, like sorta in my tummy, like it’s empty and I’m hungry and then …’ The blushed deepened. ‘Come on, yer gotta know about stiffies. Yer knows everything.’
Lance nodded. He knew about stiffies alright, and why boys had them. And gazing at the brown, pretty face and bright blue eyes of his closest friend, he finally admitted to himself what his feelings were. The tragedy of life hit him squarely between the eyes in another unexpected and quite terrible way. He wanted to go hide himself and cry, yet he knew he must master and suppress such feelings. He had to, for he was in love with his best friend, a boy who could never love him back.